More than just a game Army-Navy: Despite boyhood dreams of being a Midshipman, Gervy Alota didn't fully realize the magnitude of the annual game until he was a part of it. And Saturday is his last chance to beat Army.

December 04, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Gervy Alota sat with a reporter in an otherwise empty press box at Giants Stadium last week, looking down on the field where Army and Navy would be staging the 98th renewal of their football rivalry Saturday afternoon.

"That's where I was sitting in 1993 with all the other football players from Navy prep school who were going to the academy," said the senior co-captain and free safety, pointing to a section in the end zone to the right of the goal posts.

"We were looking right into the eyes of Ryan Bucchianeri when he lined up on the 18-yard line in the last seconds for what we all figured would be the winning field goal.

"Of course, Booch shanked it to the right. That's when we first realized how much this game with Army meant and we all cried," Alota recalled. "Later, we kidded ourselves that maybe if we'd been sitting right behind the posts, and yelled, 'Booch, over here!' he might have kicked it straight."

Alota has become far more involved emotionally as the only Midshipman to start the past three Army-Navy games. And Saturday represents his last opportunity to walk off the field a winner before graduation.

"I became a starter halfway through my freshman year," said Alota, a native of San Diego who leads the team in tackles (101). "When I got to play at Notre Dame Stadium, I thought that was the ultimate until I played against Army for the first time.

"Being young, I approached it as just an ordinary game. But after talking with my peers, it hit me what this game was all about. The emotion and the atmosphere of having the two brigades on hand is unparalleled."

Again in 1994, the game was decided by a swing of the leg, only this time it was a career-best, 52-yard field goal by Kurt Heiss that gave Army a 22-20 victory.

After his first Army game, a tearful Alota was physically and emotionally drained while the Mids lined up to sing their alma mater.

"I was feeling real weak, but someone put an arm around me. I looked up, and it was [Army coach] Bob Sutton. He sung the 'Navy Blue & Gold' with us. Then he took me aside and said, 'Son, you have a lot of football ahead of you. Keep fighting!'

"It's like our linebacker coach, Tommy Raye, tells us, 'You look in the mirror, and that's who you're playing.' We both go through the same things and play for the same reason. We play for our love of football and for our love of country."

But even that inspirational message did not help erase the frustration of two more bitter losses to Army for Alota, an emerging team leader.

As a sophomore, he saw Army drive 99 yards for the winning touchdown after Navy failed to score on fourth down from the Cadets' 1 with about eight minutes left. Last year, Navy failed to hold an 18-point lead in a 28-24 defeat.

"We let it slip through our hands," Alota said. "We were up 21-3, but just didn't have the killer instinct to finish them off. We still had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, but [wide-out] LeBron Butts dropped a couple of passes in the end zone."

It was because of Butts that Alota found his way to Annapolis as an undersized (he's now 190 pounds) and all-but-overlooked defensive back.

"LeBron and I were teammates at Morse High," he said. "He was a great high school player, and Navy recruited him hard. LeBron knew I wanted to go to the academy because my father was a career enlisted man in the Navy and I wanted to be on ships just like him."

One day, at practice, Alota, then all of 145 pounds, noticed Navy recruiter Mike Drake watching him, but not looking particularly interested.

"I introduced myself, and he said, 'Oh, you're Gervy Alota,' and by his voice, I could tell he didn't expect me to be that small."

But Drake came back for a second look, and Alota convinced the recruiter he was worth packaging with Butts for scholarship offers to Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I.

Alota said: "Honestly, my ambition in prep school was just to become good enough to play on special teams so my parents could see me play in one Army-Navy game."

Making his parents feel proud has been Alota's mission since they all but pushed him into playing football as a youngster growing up in a tough section of San Diego, an area where kids often found trouble.

When he was 6, his father drove him to a neighborhood football field.

" 'Son,' " my father said, 'go out and practice. If you don't like it, don't play. But if you like it, stick with it, and it will pay off for you in the end, I promise you.'

"I played in the Pop Warner league, and I loved it right away."

As he grew older, his family ties grew even closer. His father gave up an overseas promotion to stay in the San Diego area with his wife and children. When his mother suffered kidney failure and needed a donor, all three of her children -- Albert, 18; Gervy, 17; and daughter, Merizen, 16 -- volunteered. But Albert was selected.

"He did it for me," Gervy said. "He was a real good athlete, but he knew how badly I wanted to go to the Naval Academy. He also had aspirations to go to college, but he put me ahead of him."

That is why Gervy is dedicating this last Army game to his parents and Albert, who will graduate from San Diego State this June.

"This year, Army is our bowl game. This is the last time for me to put on the pads," Alota said. "I've pretty much accomplished everything I've wanted as a collegiate athlete. I never dreamed of starting as a freshman or playing at Notre Dame.

"But from the time you're a plebe, you start yelling, 'Beat Army! Beat Army!' And I've yet to get a star on my letter sweater or heard the bells ring in Annapolis. This is the game I want to remember the rest of my life."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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